Manvendra Singh was born into a political family but has made for a most unusual politician. A journalist, writer on defence and military matters and a self-described Arabist with an interest in the urges of the Middle East, he spent his early years at the periphery of public life. Though he is the son of Jaswant Singh, one of the stalwarts of the NDA government (1999- 2004), his entry into formal electoral politics was anything but smooth.
In 1990, as his simply-written but tellingly-told narrative informs us, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat offered him an assembly seat in Rajasthan. Manvendra’s father shook his head, asking his son to make a career for himself elsewhere. In 1999, when Manvendra did contest elections, he stood from Barmer, a massive constituency, at the time larger than the territory of Sri Lanka and one the BJP had never won. With its 20 per cent Muslim population, Barmer was tough for Manvendra’s party.
Yet, to the man himself, it held an emotional attachment. Manvendra’s ancestors came from Barmer, an area and a society splintered into two by the great rupture of 1947. “Sleeping in the desert sands under the stars at night is as cleansing an experience as there can ever be,” he writes in Campaign Diary. “I couldn’t imagine myself in politics anywhere else.”
Manvendra lost narrowly in 1999 but didn’t run away. Over the next five years he assiduously courted his would-be constituency: “I was obsessed… Friends in Delhi would ask me if I was nursing my seat, and I’d reply: ‘No, actually I’m bottle-feeding it.’ That was how involved I became, to the point that the 2004 election was completely micromanaged by me.”
It paid off, and Manvendra won an impressive victory even as the BJP crumbled nationally. Five years later, new challenges loomed. Delimitation had taken away two assembly segments that had contributed handsomely to Manvendra’s vote share in 2004. As such, he was advised to move to Jodhpur or Jalore, considered more Rajput-friendly. Devoted to his desert and determined not to get sucked into caste-based politics — or at least avoid it to the degree possible — Manvendra stuck to his guns and stayed with Barmer. He also kept a diary of the two-month campaign. This book is a rendition of that diary.
There are no big facts or news exclusives that spring out of its pages, but in many senses Campaign Diary is an enormously revealing book. It delineates, painstakingly, inch by inch almost, the gruelling and impossible journey of a constituency mp and candidate in India. As Manvendra describes the everyday campaign, travelling from one hamlet to the next, the sheer enormity of the quest for a Lok Sabha seat becomes apparent. Here, far removed from the big national debates and primetime shouting matches, you look your voter in the eye and hope he believes you; and you remain unsure till the votes are counted.
Manvendra captures this conundrum and this marathon with remarkable honesty. Let’s pick a date at random, the evening of 8 April: “I had another 100 km to do before I could get back to Barmer. I think today’s total will have been over 300 km. So, when the Scorpio took the final turn towards the house, I let out a groan as there were people waiting for me. This is always the trickiest meeting of the day, as the mind wants a rest even more than the body does. My mental fatigue was in stark contrast to the alertness evident in the waiting party. After all, they had not travelled hundreds of kilometres or dealt with issues that tear at the fabric of the mind. But I had to bear it with a smile…”
Manvendra brings out the husband, the father and the family man behind the candidate. Following the closing stages of the English Premier League season with his son, something he is expected to do, election or no election; the emotional toll that the eventual defeat takes on his daughter; the aftermath, when his wife breaks down and all he can do is hold her in silence. Read the book. It’ll make you a little less cynical about politicians.